Human Rights Advocates article

Human Rights Advocates

Vol. 42 Winter 2003-04

The Death Penalty: Can Delay Render Execution Unlawful?

By Philip Sapsford, Queen’s Counsel,

and Claudio Marinucci

[material about other cases omitted for brevity]

The case of N.I. Sequoyah (NIS) in California provides an example of international efforts to end the death row phenomena in the United States. NIS was born Billy Ray Waldon on January 3rd 1952 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Following high school, NIS enrolled in the United States Navy. He trained as an Electronic Warfare Technician and progressed to the rank of First Class Petty Officer responsible for Electronic Warfare Watch supervision. During his naval career, NIS became an advocate of the international language Esperanto. He participated in the meetings and conventions of several linguistic organizations, and lectured in Italy, France, Spain and Greece on the Cherokee and Japanese languages.

Following an honorable discharge from the navy in 1984, NIS actively pursued his interests in the linguistics, history and culture of Esperanto and Cherokee.

In June 1986 NIS was arrested and charged on eight counts for crimes committed in Oklahoma between the 15th and the 23rd of November 1985, and on twenty-four counts for crimes committed in San Diego between the 7th and the 20th of December 1985. The charges included murder, rape, arson, armed robbery, use of a firearm with intent to kill, grievous bodily harm, and burglary.

NIS fought, at length, for the right of self-representation, which was granted in November 1989. There was widespread unbalanced media coverage of the case both before and during the trial, which began in June 1991.

Devoid of both motive and forensic evidence, the prosecution case rested on stolen property found in a car belonging to NIS, questionable eye-witness testimony, and a proficiency in outmaneuvering an unskilled and inadequately prepared defense, unable to attach substance to its claims of political subterfuge targeting American Indian activists.

NIS was found guilty in December 1991 and was sentenced to death in February 1992. Since March 1992 NIS has been an inmate of San Quentin State Prison.’


With these legal precedents in mind, fos*ters (friends of sequoyah * team research Switzerland) was founded in Switzerland in 1992 with the specific aim of securing active legal representation for N.I. Sequoyah. fos*ters has an active core group of ten individuals backed up by approximately one hundred further members who have supported activities over the past eleven years.

fos*ters founders established contact with Sequoyah’s wife, researched the available information, which included 7000 of the more than 27000 pages of trial transcripts, and documented discrepancies, incongruencies and inadequacies of the case and its prosecution in a 350-page report. On the basis of this report, fos*ters then began looking for both sponsorship and (legal) technical expertise to pursue its aims.

A chance encounter in the summer of 1994 brought fos*ters into contact with the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) in London and through a sucession of meetings and information exchanges an informal collaboration was established.

Having reviewed the complete set of trial transcripts provided by fos*ters, the BHRC identified specific legal, procedural and humanitarian concerns with both the conduct of Sequoyah's trial and the status of his appeal and declared their willingness to submit an Amicus Curiae Brief on his behalf.

In pursuit of it's goals, fos*ters has also sought out and developed relationships with other organisations in both Europe and the United States. One such organization, the Geneva based Association for the Prevention of Torture is actively collaborating with the BHRC with regard to the Amicus Curiae Brief. fos*ters is also in contact with the the International Secretariat of Amnesty International and the Office for the State [of California] Public Defender. Where necessary, the BHRC has assumed the role of technical coordinator.

fos*ters members have visited Sequoyah in San Quentin annually and the association has also played a role in supporting visits by BHRC lawyers. Sequoyah's most regular visitor, Father Matthew Regan, a preacher and fund raiser for the charity Food for the Poor, sadly passed away in June 2003.

fos*ters is self-financed and self-motivated. The association is focussed on what it set out to do. Progress is slow, but with the help and support of its membership and the goodwill and active collaboration of other organisations progress is being achieved.

At the end of 2003, twelve years after the sentence of the first trial, the record correction procedure is still not completed. From a European point of view, this is unconscionable and Sequoyah is effectively denied the opportunity to establish his innocence because the Supreme Court of California refuses to list his appeal for hearing.

In October 2003, Human Rights Advocates co-sponsored events at the San Francisco Bar Association and U.S.F. School of Law where Mr. Sapsford discussed these issues.